The new cool
Central Coast Comic-Con to touch down in Ventura
By Chris O'Neal 09/05/2013
This just in: nerds are cool, and Ventura is finally cashing in with this weekend’s Central Coast Comic-Con.
What once was a title reserved for only the loneliest of outcasts is now an achievement worn proudly upon character-strewn T-shirts and forearms and hips as tattoos and designer accessories. In less than a decade, the uncool has become the cool, and now we celebrate all things nerdy as often as possible, in every place that’ll allow it.
Kris Blackburn spent most of the beginning of August traveling cross-country from Chicago. In the West Texas town of Odessa, Blackburn stayed among oil jockeys and cowboys. For Ventura native Blackburn, adapting to new surroundings comes with the territory. Over the past four years, Blackburn has covered and attended more than 300 conventions.
“Conventions are normally about art and the connection between fans and artists,” he told VCReporter from his vehicle as he crossed the Chihuahuan Desert. “Most people say there’s no point to doing a convention in California. They don’t make money; it’s not special. We want to prove that wrong with C4.”
Central Coast Comic-Con, or C4, sprang from the idea that Ventura could handle a convention in its truest form – a community-oriented event featuring local artists and celebrities, with a little help from big names in the industry, minus the madness surrounding major conventions like San Diego Comic-Con.
With an impressive list of artists, writers, musical guests and comedians, C4 is banking on leaving a big impression. Of the headliners, Blackburn happened upon Thousand Oaks resident Sid Haig, who jumped at the opportunity.
Haig, with a career spanning 40 years in the film industry and best-known for his role as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, will be a guest of honor. His latest, Hatchet 3, has just been released on DVD. Haig agreed to appear without much convincing.
“The more publicity that gets out, the more people show up, the more connections we get to make,” he said. “That’s the important thing.”
Haig has been attending conventions for more than a decade, and has a strong preference for fan interaction.
Owner George Chase has made Hypno Comics
in Ventura a haven for nerdy types.
“The celebrity being there is, of course, the big attraction,” he said. “You see somebody on a 20-foot screen and you have an opportunity to go and shake hands and get autographs. The thing that people often forget: without the fans we don’t have anything.”
C4 is hosted by WTF Events, an organization consisting of several coordinators and convention specialists based in Ventura, Phoenix and Austin, Texas, for which Kris Blackburn is an events coordinator. Prior to C4, WTF Events hosted a convention known as Rapture, a horror expo in Tempe. C4 is the group’s second convention.
Penny Lane, co-founder of the all things nerdy website Legion of Nerds, is one of the driving forces behind spreading the word on the convention’s impending arrival. Lane’s particular specialty is cosplay — literally costume play — in which fans don the outfits of their favorite characters (or of their own creation). With her expertise and circle of cosplaying friends, Lane’s excitement has reached the far ends of the county and beyond.
“Not any one specific group or person can ever represent an entire community, especially one like Ventura,” said Lane. “There’s going to be an entire section of cosplayers. You can see their work, talk to them about their craft, and ask them how they got started. We’re bringing the bigger names in cosplay to the community to spread the word about their hobby.”
Cosplayers spanning the entire scope of multiple fandoms are making appearances at C4, including the international Star Wars cosplay group The 501st Legion, an eclectic mix of professionals who model themselves Sith Lords or Imperial Stormtroopers; the Halo 405th, a battalion of armored soldiers based on Microsoft’s Halo video game franchise; and the Cosplay Calendar Girls, a group of professional cosplayers/models (emphasis on professional).
Chloe Dykstra, star of Sci-Fi Channel’s new reality competition show Heroes of Cosplay, in which cosplay enthusiasts compete reality television-style, replete with drama and critique, is a professional cosplayer. Her father worked as a Hollywood F/X artist on both Star Wars and Star Trek and she hosts the cosplay-oriented Just Cos on the Nerdist YouTube channel. She is also known as Skydart to her followers, who number in the tens of thousands on Twitter and Facebook.
“I consider cosplay an outlet for whatever you want it to be an outlet for,” said Dykstra via email. “Some people use it as a way to express themselves, some people use it as a boost to their self-confidence, and some people use it as way to make money. I use it as a form of connection, to make new friends, and to inspire people to make things.
Conventions have become big business. With the extreme popularity of adapting comics to film, and the reality that six of the top 15 highest-grossing films of all time are either Star Wars- or comic-book-related, convention attendance has skyrocketed. Now, the film and television production companies have claimed large stakes in a territory once dedicated to the nichiest of niches.
“When Hollywood’s focus is geeky franchises, geeks benefit, whether or not they want to admit it,” said Dykstra. “Nerd culture, as obnoxious as that term has gotten, has set us free.”
The biggest beneficiary of the flip-flopping of polarities in what is and isn’t cool is network television. AMC’s The Walking Dead gave the channel its highest-rated program to date, and the BBC’s Doctor Who, in the year of its 50th anniversary, has made massive gains in capturing an American audience. All of this, plus the numerous spinoffs, originals and cash-ins, results in more attention and a higher degree of interest, plus big changes.
Photo by: Paolo Cellammare • Chloe Dykstra
George Chase’s first convention was San Diego Comic-Con in 1992. Since then, he’s attended multiple others as well as hosting his own small conventions in Ventura. His Ventura shop, Hypno Comics, has grown from its humble beginnings as a comic-book store to a multifaceted geek dispensary.
“Conventions for me were magical,” said Chase. “Creators were easy to access back then, and they still are, to an extent.”
Twenty one years later, San Diego Comic-Con is bigger than ever. With 2013’s event attended by an estimate of more than 130,000 people, it has quickly become one of, if not the largest convention of its kind, raking in an estimated $163 million for San Diego during its five-day run, including receipts from hotels, restaurants and other resources used by attendees.
“It’s big business,” said Chase, a major sponsor of C4 alongside longtimers Ralph’s Comic Corner/Seth’s Games & Anime. “I think that it’s not only good for the bottom line but it’s good for the next generation of collectors, hobbyists and fans. We need to keep passing the torch on.”
But for those who believe Comic-Con’s gigantic increase in popularity is good for business, others see it overshadowing the producers who made the scene what it is today.
“It’s hard for normal people to go,” said Blackburn on the patio at Ventiki in downtown Ventura, referring to San Diego Comic-Con’s notoriously difficult ticketing process. Tickets can reach upward of $175 for a single day; C4’s general admission for a weekend pass is $40.
“It’s sad when artists who created the characters people are dressing up as can’t afford to attend,” said Blackburn.
Artist and writer Howard Chaykin will be making an appearance at C4. Best-known for creating the comic hit American Flagg, as a cult-favorite artist and writer and for his later work with both Marvel and DC, he has attended well beyond 1,000 conventions in his 40-year career, but isn’t a fan of the “Mardi Gras sensibility” of modern events.
“I live here, it’s local, it would be idiotic for me not to appear,” said Chaykin, who stopped attending San Diego Comic-Con years ago. “I will use every possible excuse not to go to San Diego because there is nothing there for me. All there is is frustration and cluster fuckery.”
As for what it will take for C4 to succeed, Chaykin is a bit more down to earth.
WTF Events Event Coordinator Kris Blackburn
“Ventura is not the garden of the universe. If the people who are running this show are to succeed, they’re going to need attendees from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and maybe even the OC.”
Kris Blackburn spent a week coordinating cosplayers and his convention attendees for a commercial shoot. In front of Hypno Comics, a cosplayer in an alternative Rosie the Riveter outfit smiles for the camera. As the shadow of success among the giants of the industry looms, Blackburn focuses on making C4 big enough to pull from more than just locals.
For C4, Blackburn and his team have produced a lineup of guests and events that might seem impossible for a first-time convention. Multiple stars and artists, both local and national, are scheduled to appear.
Neil Grayston of the Sci-Fi Channel’s Eureka and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, star of many films but best-known in the nerd realm as Shang Tsung from the 1995 video game adaptation of Mortal Kombat, will be making an appearance alongside Sid Haig. Attendees can purchase special packages to meet the actors and artists personally.
Like other conventions, there are multiple facets to what will make C4 exciting, covering multiple fandoms.
This Friday, WTF Events will host a charity pre-party at House of Magic in Ventura featuring bands and celebrity appearances. On Saturday, when the doors open at 10 a.m., attendees can become a part of the Star Wars universe by signing up for the Jedi Experience: an event hosted by sword-master and Hollywood trainer Tim Weske in which the enrolled will learn a scripted lightsaber battle against a Sith or Jedi, depending on their chosen alignment, for a live performance later that evening.
Star Wars not your thing? How about Star Trek? The Enterprise bridge will be on hand, having been repurposed as a museum for children by NewStarship.com, perfect for the convention’s Kid’s Day on Sunday, when kids 12 and younger get free entry. Kids will have an opportunity to train aboard the Starship Enterprise and use their knowledge to solve real-life scenarios and questions about geography and history.
Comics on Comics comedy troupe will be making an appearance at C4 as well, featuring comedians from Los Angeles waxing ironic about anything and everything nerdy.
Gamers will be readily represented by Ventura gaming center The Armory, and a dedicated area for tabletop gaming, and even a replica of the T.A.R.D.I.S. and a Dalek from Doctor Who will be on site.
The show floor will host an artist’s alley, a traditional staple in every convention since the dawn of time. Local artists, such as The Adventures of the 19XX creator Paul Roman Martinez, will sit alongside renowned authors and writers, such as Superman and X-Men author Scott Lobdell and Top Cow artists/creators Rashan Ekedal and Matt Hawkins.
Classic vehicles from film and television will also be on hand. The murderous car from Christine, The General Lee from Dukes of Hazard and K.I.T.T. From Knight Rider will no doubt be subjects of photographers.
Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding
As with most modern conventions, however, the men and women who cosplay will pull in their own fans and gawkers, in attendance solely to see what they’re wearing. Among the individuals known for quality costumes and their massive numbers of fans — Jessica Nigri, Rosanna Rocha and Toni Darling, to name a few — are a multitude of cosplay groups.
Amanda Lewis’ first cosplay was as X-23, the daughter of (spoiler alert) X-Men’s Wolverine. Using a leather corset and material scavenged from various hobby stores, Lewis’ cosplay turned out much to her liking.
“I try to limit my budget to $200,” said Lewis, who is also a member of Legion of Nerds. “The more I do it, the more complex it gets.”
Having connections within the Legion of Nerds and elsewhere gave Lewis the opportunity to better her craft, from stitching skin-tight suits to shaping the daggers used for her most recent cosplay, Elektra from Marvel’s Daredevil comics.
“Everyone has to start somewhere, and they’ve all learned from their past through trial and error.”
The number of women in the comic book scene has increased exponentially over the years. Women, who might have shied away from the comic book scene in the past, now find themselves at the top of popularity charts.
Sit in the command chair of the Starship Enterprise at C4.
“It’s great if you’re a professional cosplayer,” said Penny Lane, “but it’s also causing a bit of a rift, where people say that they aren’t good enough, but that’s not what cosplay is about. Cosplay is whatever you want it to be.”
A vast majority of cosplayers who double as real-life and Internet personas with massive followings are women. Cosplayer Jessica Nigri has a Facebook following of close to 500,000, and tens of thousands on Twitter. Whether that can be attributed to the risqué nature of some costumes or simply the craftsmanship that goes into them is a subject of contention.
“There are some people out there who will shun you if you’re not up to par,” said Lane. “But I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing this for me.’ There are girls who say, ‘I’m not skinny enough’ or ‘I’m not pretty enough’ to wear that costume, but I say cosplay is cosplay, so why not?”
“With the introduction of competition, some of the community has gone down a dark, judgmental road,” said Chloe Dykstra. “I hope that once people can see past the minor things they perceive as flaws, they’ll see the overall message of it: Stop being so serious and have fun.”
Recently the Legion of Nerds hosted a school supply drive, in costume at The Tavern in Ventura. Amid cocktails and music, characters hopped off the pages of the comics and out of the television for a night of revelry. For Blackburn, this kind of community outreach will make C4 successful.
“I really truly believe that if we make it about Ventura County, people will want to come to it,” said Blackburn. “As long as people have fun, experience it and interact and want to come back, we’ll be back.”
The Central Coast Comic-Con takes place on Saturday, Sept. 7, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 8, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.venturacomiccon.com.